Trafficking, South Asia and Pakistan

Employment is often seen to be empowering for women, and various agencies and individuals have advocated the unrestricted movement of women to enable them to find employment in other countries. In Nepal, for instance, where until recently women were debarred from going abroad to perform informal sector jobs, there was vociferous demand that women be given the freedom to migrate in the pursuit of a vocation. Ironically, as a recent study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific highlights, such freedom of mobility often leads to servile forms of domination and abuse that rival and surpass the conditions of domestic servility at home. In many instances, women after migrating to foreign labour markets could either find themselves in the sex industry or become practically enslaved or bonded domestics in elite households. Illusions of emancipation and empowerment are best discarded where the question of female migrant labour is concerned.

This is not to suggest that the economic options provided by migration should be foreclosed. But we must address the issue without preconceived notions about its emancipatory potential and to focus instead on the regulatory aspects of the process. While the ethical attitude to female labour migration may vary, the inescapable fact is that migration of women in South Asia is burgeoning and is happening under a regime of globalisation which is not particularly benign in its attitude to labour, and even less so towards women.

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Himal Southasian